In the summer of 1849, Herman Melville was holed up in his crowded New York City apartment writing a seafaring novel called White Jacket while a cholera epidemic swept through the city. As he scribed his story about life aboard the U.S.S. Neversink, another story was unfolding in New York, one that likely influenced his last novel, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, published on April Fool’s Day eight years later.
The New York Herald was covering the arrest and sentencing of a man named Samuel (or Thomas) Williams (or Thompson), who had been grifting people around the city out of their money and expensive watches. The Herald coined the phrase “confidence man” as it followed the aliased New Yorker’s trial.
Williams became known for a signature trick. He would approach a man on the street and strike up conversation, appearing himself as a well-to-do person. He would ask the stranger, “have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?” and when the man would oblige, he would laugh all the way to the pawnbroker.
This con might seem as though it could only possibly work on the most gullible among us, but the confidence man’s ruse was successful because he was so artful about it. He had ways of implying to his victim that they were old acquaintances, and he exploited a powerful human quality: trust.
Even if Melville wasn’t finding time to read the Herald that year, he was receiving Literary World, which mentioned the writer in its first two issues in August. The next issue featured a witty writeup of New York’s scammer from Merchants’ Ledger that found the bright side of his crime:
That one poor swindler, like the one under arrest, should have been able to drive so considerable a trade on an appeal to so simple a quality as the confidence of man in man, shows that all virtue and humanity of nature is not entirely extinct in the nineteenth century. It is a good thing, and speaks well for human nature, that, at this late day, in spite of all the hardening of civilization and all the warning of newspapers, men can be swindled.
If Melville did read that humorous column, he would have seen the author’s comparison of the confidence man to politicians and merchants too, invoking the deceptions involved in so-called virtuous vocations.
The Moby Dick writer published The Confidence-Man on April 1, 1857, and the story takes place on the very same day. The Confidence-Man is set aboard a boat, but not a frigate or a whaling ship as in his prior novels. It is a steamboat that starts out in St. Louis and makes its way toward New Orleans. Told as a series of short stories, the book features a recurring character, a sinister man who takes on many different likenesses and tests the trust of everyone around him. In Chapter V, he tries to convince a student to let him throw the boy’s book of Tacitus overboard to give him a chance at trusting his fellow man: “For, comparatively inexperienced as you are, my dear young friend, did you never observe how little, very little, confidence there is? I mean between man and man — more particularly between stranger and stranger. In a sad world it is the saddest fact.”
The Confidence-Man was a commercial failure in its time, and Melville made almost no money off the book. Afterwards, he wrote poetry and — from the accounts of his family — led a depressed life. It wasn’t until 1919, 100 years after his birth and nearly 30 years after his death, that his work began to receive great academic attention, catapulting him into the American canon.
Melville has been studied and praised for his canny understanding of American expansionism and racism and his obsession with detail. Of course, Moby Dick has been the star of his oeuvre, but The Confidence-Man has garnered some attention as well. Having consulted the novel while writing 1967’s Bedazzled, Peter Cook called it “the most brilliantly metaphorical story about all these little barriers and pretensions of the virtuous middle-class being torn down by the devil among us.” Others have noted the book’s timelessness in depicting issues of trust and division among Americans.
In a 2017 interview, Philip Roth called The Confidence-Man “the relevant book about Trump’s American forebear” instead of one of his own books, saying it “could just as well have been called The Art of the Scam.
Dr. Cornel West said of The Confidence-Man, “Part of the genius of Melville is that he understood … that the core of the religious and existential problem for human beings is the call for help. A suffering humanity, calling for help: that is who we are.” West credits Melville with a deep understanding of faith and philosophy and questions whether his confidence man is meant to be satanic or Christ-like, saying “America itself is the condition of possibility for this figure.”
Although Melville’s con man commits scams in increasing complexity throughout his novel, the real-life confidence man of cholera-ridden New York suffered a less fortunate fate in his escapades. Samuel-Thomas-Thompson-Williams wound up in the Manhattan Detention Complex for his trickery in 1849. As he tried several times to post bail, he ran into an ironic snag that the Herald took plenty of pleasure in reporting: his cronies who were supposed to use his money to get him out of jail took off and left him high and dry. “This modern genius of persuasion the ‘Confidence Man,’ is still in the Tombs, pondering over his unfortunate situation, and bad luck besides, in having been deceived, by placing too much ‘confidence’ in the persons who professed to be his friends.” On October 10th, the Herald printed the transcript of Williams’ trial as he stood before a jury that declared him guilty “without leaving their seats.” The next day, Melville boarded the Southampton for England to promote his new book and to get away from hectic American life.
Featured image: Library of Congress
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